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SAO PAULO: Over the past two decades, there has been a visible increase in the number of Muslim converts in the poor suburbs and slums of major cities in Brazil.

New mosques have been established in neighborhoods with no history of receiving immigrants from the Middle East.

No one knows for sure the size of Brazil’s Muslim population. In 2010, during the last census carried out by the government, 35,000 Brazilians declared themselves Muslim, a very small proportion of the total population of 210 million. Many in the country believe the number is much higher now.

In 2012 Cesar Kaab Abdul established a mosque in Jardim Cultura Fisica, a slum in the city of Embu das Artes, Sao Paulo metropolitan area.

A community organizer for decades, he was part of the first generation of hip hop artists in Brazil in the 1980s and rose to prominence in this milieu as a rapper and cultural activist.

Caesar’s Mosque is named after Sumayyah bint Khayyat, a member of the Prophet Muhammad’s community.

“I chose a woman’s name to show that the idea that women are oppressed in Islam is just a prejudice,” he told Arab News.

Cesar’s first contact with Islam was through the autobiography of Malcolm X, which circulated widely among black resistance movements.

“Most rappers had Malcolm X as a reference, but his religiosity usually went unnoticed,” he added.

As an office worker in Sao Paulo’s financial district, Cesar had an Arab Muslim colleague and became curious about his prayer breaks during office hours. “He told me he was a Muslim and I remembered the story of Malcolm X,” he recalls.

Cesar continued rapping and achieved some success. His band even performed at American rapper Ja Rule’s concert in Brazil.

But he remained interested in Islam and continually searched for information about it online.

In 2007 he came into contact with a Muslim preacher in Egypt who educated him and sent him books on Islam. From that moment, Cesar’s life began to change profoundly.

“I used to be very radical about the cultural and political aspects of Islam…but I started to understand its true nature,” he said.

In 2014, Cesar performed the Hajj, which was “a profoundly transformative experience”. By this time, he had already stopped participating in music concerts and drinking alcohol. In addition to his mosque, he established a center for the dissemination of Islam.

Many of his hip-hop colleagues followed his lead and converted to Islam. Cesar began to use his cultural influence to spread the prophet’s message, handing out Qurans even to high profile Brazilian rappers such as Dexter and Mano Brown.

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Her mosque became a social center and during the COVID-19 pandemic she distributed at least 30 tons of food to the most needy in the region.

One of the fruits of his labor was the conversion of Kareem Malik Abdul, a master of capoeira, a combination of dance and martial art created by African slaves during the era of slavery in Brazil (1500-1888 ).

“Capoeira has a connection with Afro-Brazilian religions,” Kareem told Arab News. “At first I resisted going to the mosque when Caesar invited me, but then I saw how Islam had changed his life.”

A longtime member of a capoeira group, he didn’t like the jokes his colleagues made about him after his conversion.

“Sometimes someone would say in front of everyone at the gym that I was carrying bombs in my backpack. As a Muslim, I was considered a terrorist,” said Kareem, who decided to quit his colleagues and to create his own capoeira group.

“They saw capoeira as a form of combat and could sometimes get violent. In my group, I decided to focus on the musical, cultural and historical dimensions of capoeira, emphasizing the human aspect.

The idea of ​​taking extra precautions with the physical safety and boundaries of all participants came from Islam, Kareem said.

He eventually developed a motivation-based teaching method, which attracted children with Down syndrome into his classes.

A black activist, he usually talks to his students about malês, which is how Muslim Africans – usually brought from West Africa – were called during the time of slavery in Brazil, particularly in the 19th century.

In 1835, they led a famous rebellion for freedom in Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia.

“I’m sure some of the males were capoeira fighters,” said Kareem, who celebrated another capoeira master’s conversion to Islam because of his work.

Jamal Adesoji, a 40-year-old biologist and rapper from the town of Pelotas, is also passionate about the history of malês.

A black activist, he first learned about Islam after watching a film about Malcolm X. Years later, he sought help from Palestinian immigrants in his town to learn more about the religion.

“I attended mosques in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and sometimes I felt discriminated against because I was not Arab and because I am black,” he lamented.

Over the years, Adesoji met many African Muslims and began to feel part of a common identity.

“I studied and discovered that there were malês and even Islamic schools in my city in the 19th century,” he said.

“Islam arrived in Brazil with the Africans, so it is part of our identity – a part that has faded over time.”

Adesoji attends a mosque in the city of Passo Fundo that was established years ago by Muhammad Lucena, a convert from Sao Paulo.

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The mosque gathers 1,000 people. About 150 of them are Brazilian converts, while the rest are West Africans and South Asians, mostly workers in halal units at meat and poultry processing plants.

Lucena was a black activist from Sao Paulo whose group began to collectively study the works of Malcolm X in the early 1990s.

They decided to go to a local mosque to learn more about Islam. Lucena and a friend ended up converting.

In 1997 he received a scholarship to study in Libya – a turbulent time due to international sanctions imposed on Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.

After struggling to adjust to his new life – he only spoke Portuguese and didn’t know anyone in Libya – Lucena managed to learn Arabic and studied at university for three years.

“When I came back to Brazil, all I had in mind was to spread the message of the prophet,” he said.

Lucena was invited to work in the halal industry in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. “Many Brazilians converted after meeting their Muslim colleagues in the processing plant, especially people from the poorer areas of the city,” he recalled.

The rapid growth of the Passo Fundo community caught the eye of a Kuwaiti donor, and Lucena was able to purchase a building and construct a mosque.

“Some of the Brazilian families who ended up leaving the city and returning to their areas of origin also created Muslim communities,” he said.

Lucena believes Islam will continue to grow in the country as more Brazilians become involved in its spread.

Syrian-born Jihad Hammadeh, a prominent sheikh in Brazil, told Arab News: “Brazil has erased great African Muslim figures from its history. Reparation is needed at all levels as long as black rights are not respected.

It celebrates the fact that there are now many sheikhs in the country who can guide converts on their journey, which will avoid possible distortions.

“Although Brazilian Islam was consolidated by Arab immigrants, now things have changed,” Hammadeh said.

“Some time ago, it was unthinkable that a convert could assume the leadership of an Islamic institution. Now it is increasingly common. »

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